Recovering Self-Identity Amidst Long-Term Unemployment

By Dave Gallison

This topic, recovery from long-term unemployment, gets harder for me to write about the longer the tail of the “Great Recession” drags on. As a career counselor in private practice, I see the devastating effects on my clients who have been unemployed six months or more, particularly those in their forties and fifties. The frustration and shame is etched in the contours of sorrowful faces, down-turned shoulders and low voices that come from multiple rejections and being forced to tap retirement accounts to meet current living expenses.


From years of work in career counseling and outplacement, I am well-versed in how to teach my clients all the ways to access the “hidden job market,” network effectively, and find new opportunities. But the sheer scale of this recession—at the current rate of adding 144,000 new jobs a month it will take 15 years just to get back to pre-recession levels—suggests the employment landscape has been altered by a tsunami.


Without a Job, Who am I?
While the best-prepared or fortunate few may get back into the workforce at some semblance of their former employment, for many—middle-aged men in particular—the reduction in income and job status may prove to be permanent. More importantly, the involuntary job loss affects not just financial viability, but cuts to the core of identity and meaning in life. This is succinctly captured by a recent book title, Without a Job, Who Am I? (Abraham Twerski).


Life as those former job holders knew it, and the world of work, might never be the same again. Indeed, counselors like me may relay the new conventional wisdom that “all future jobs are temporary” and can end at any time.


For clients dealing with such a radical, frequently painful change in their external world, they may be forced to face inward, to one’s self-identity, the last remaining place that is under one’s control. This possibility of self-renewal is essential to moving forward. Job loss and sustained unemployment sap confidence and undermine quality of life, feeding a vicious cycle that inhibits employment prospects as well.


Proceed in Parallel.
What to do? With clients who come to me, I proceed on parallel tracks—develop and execute a job search campaign that is more focused and effective, and help clients adapt to major changes in their lives and rebuild their sense of meaning and identity. Job seeking for long-term displaced workers in this period of sustained record unemployment is, in itself, a subject for another article, let alone several counseling sessions. However, if we can progressively address the emotional, physical and even spiritual effects of job loss, then we can begin to reverse the spiral of self-doubt that stifles effective job-seeking behaviors.


Is there an Alternative to the Status Quo for the Long-term Unemployed?
I have found a few ways to help clients accept the reality of job loss and its attendant disruption of lifestyle, family, relationships, etc. To start with, we are often not aware of the values we operate under until our bubble bursts. Job loss and the struggle of long-term unemployment can cause us to re-evaluate. Instead of “Will I measure up to my neighbors and obtain the American Dream?” maybe we should ask why we even judge each other by material gain. Why do we overly identify with what we do rather than who we are? Can we possibly live fulfilled lives with less money? Instead of overly identifying with our jobs, what about giving more to the other roles in our lives such as parent, family member, volunteer, etc? As Elbert Hubbard reminds, “We work to become, not to acquire.”


Time for an Activity Adjustment.
Awareness of misguided values can begin to free up a consciousness that was formerly brainwashed by false aspects of our culture and possibly consumed with over-working. Once freed up, how do you help clients recover self-worth, zest for living, while still unemployed (or at least in the time not spent looking for work)? In The Joy of Not Working, a whimsically titled and inspiring book, Ernie Zalinski suggests the loss of work makes apparent the need to replace three things:

  1. Structure

  2. Purpose

  3. Sense of Community

For instance, losing the structure provided by workplace routines can be unsettling to those now unemployed. As a result, clients may benefit from directed coaching about ways they can rebuild their own newly-rewarding routines: daily exercise, working as a volunteer, and taking college courses as well as scheduling job search activities.


While having a purpose is subtler than structure needs, it is perhaps more essential to happiness and fulfillment. If a client is not aware of their purpose in life, then I may direct the client to exercises like writing a mission statement or to various forms of contemplation or readings to explore the deeper self. For many, meaning can be found in contribution, in living for something larger than self.


And finally, because work tends to provide ready friends and after-work activities—one’s sense of community--the period between jobs will require deliberate cultivation of friends and social relationships if balance is to be restored. I have been surprised by how much support and validation my clients report after a referral to any of the numerous area job search support groups. And, seeking involvement with a group—be it church, community-related, interest or sport, etc—reduces isolation and can add structure and reinforce one’s sense of purpose.


Let me bring this full circle: There is life after layoff and its personal, structure-altering and an economic jolt. The inner work for a client to realize they are more than their job and to rebuild self-worth is essential to getting back on the career track after long term unemployment.





Credit for some of the core ideas and references is given to Dina Bergren and Nicolle Skalski, whose presentation, Reinventing Career Identity After Job Loss, I attended at the NCDA Conference, Atlanta, GA, 6/22/12.



Dave GallisonDave Gallison, MS, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and has a practice in Portland, Oregon that emphasizes career and personal development to help clients find rewarding work. His website is www.gallisonconsulting.com and he can be reached through e-mail at dave@gallisonconsulting.com.



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Karen Hanen   on Saturday 12/01/2012 at 08:28 PM

Dave this is an excellent article and a great reminder that our role is to attend to the whole person and help them make sense of their long-term unemployment situation, while finding renewed meaning and purpose in their lives.

Ginny Ruder   on Sunday 12/02/2012 at 09:22 AM

Thank you for putting this so beautifully. I try to encourage all my clients to volunteer while they job hunt. It gives them purpose and often it can expose them to new ways to think about themselves and how they fit into the work world.

Paul Martin   on Monday 12/03/2012 at 10:23 AM

Great article. It succintly describes the issues that many unemployed people face and strategies that can help them and all of us gain a healty perspective on our lives.

Dave Gallison   on Monday 12/03/2012 at 01:02 PM


Yes, agree, as counselors we are called on by each client to aid their career path, and sometimes when job circumstances let them down, aid finding their way on the larger path of life and its transcendent meaning.

Dave Gallison   on Monday 12/03/2012 at 01:19 PM


I appreciate your emphasis on the role and value that volunteering can play in career transition. An overriding purpose, expressed through volunteer work, can be key to keeping meaning alive in one's life.

As you suggest, volunteering allows for all sorts of factors to sort out and evolve -- healing residual trauma from job loss, reconnecting with the importance of contributing, and increasing the chances for happenstance lighting upon new career ideas and opportunities.

Dave Gallison   on Monday 12/03/2012 at 01:24 PM


Thanks for your feedback. Like you, helping others and ourselves find and enjoy a progressively higher perspective on life is why I feel called to do this work.

Amy in Chicago   on Monday 12/03/2012 at 07:25 PM

I so appreciated this article, Dave. Having just lost my job two weeks ago, I am in the excited and overwhelmed stage of unemployment. While I am so excited to start a new chapter in my life, I am well aware of the many steps and possible closed doors ahead of me. This morning I wrote on my blog "Who Am I Without a Job" and am restling with this very thing. Fortunately, my faith is the core of my identity, but my career has been right up there. I will check out the books you suggested and continue to take a deeper look at this valuable time of reflection, innovation and character building. As I always said to my team, "Good Times!" At least for now! :-)

Dave Gallison   on Monday 12/03/2012 at 08:07 PM


Kudos to you for following through the impulse to write and share a little of your story. It is particularly refreshing because a person with such a recent job loss is at the front end, the preventive stage, of what I write about in dealing with the impacts of long-term unemployment. It sounds like you are already conscious there is a change process ahead that can last a short or a long time, and faith can be key in getting through it.

Since you are at the initial stage of finding work, to name just a few more relevant books I would recommend Bolles (What Color is Your Parachute) and Bridges (Transitions, and Managing Transitions). Possibly my best, most cost-effective advice to accelerate finding your next job, however, would be to seek out area career counselors and pick one to work with you in accomplishing your new beginning. Best wishes.

Amy in Chicago   on Monday 12/03/2012 at 08:17 PM

Thanks, Dave. I guess I should share what my occupation was/is: Career Counselor! LOL So I am entering this season very well aware of how to find a job and very well aware that there is more at work than the obvious - and I want to honor that. I was at a large, for-profit university and part of a 900 person lay-off, so I am in very good company. In the midst of this I want to be sure I am serving and helping others and not allowing my situation to consume my time and thoughts. Thanks, again, for helping those of us who are helping those in the midst of transition. Bless you!

Marie Zeits   on Thursday 01/24/2013 at 03:34 PM

Dave.. Thanks for this very insightful and relevant article. As the spouse of the type of unemployment situation you described, it was helpful to me. The effects of long-term unemployment especially as one ages
definitely strains relationships. I often struggle with finding a way to be supportive, suggesting the tactics you recommended, while not being perceived as nagging. It is particularly difficult after being turned down or not hearing back from an interview. I think there is also a need for a safe place or support groups for the partners of the long-term unemployed. I am on my way to the library to get the books you recommended.

Thanks for sharing your wisdom.


Dave Gallison   on Saturday 01/26/2013 at 06:57 PM


I really appreciate the perspective of the partner for someone who is long-term unemployed.

Extended job loss cuts many ways--one's sense of value and self-identity, the stability or former balance in one's committed relationship, and adjustments to income and standard of living.

As you say from firsthand experience, it definitely strains relationships. The partner may tend to blame their spouse for the job loss--not taking their job seriously, trying hard enough, not seeing the warning signs, and now causing various forms of financial deprivation. Similarly, in job search, the partner may naturally judge that their spouse is not doing enough or going about it the right way, sabotaging interviews, etc.

That's a great idea to offer a support group for spouses! Also, for books, I recommend "Career Comeback" by Richardson for an empathetic and right-on understanding of what is involved in the transition process.

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